Emma Woodhouse, as Jane Austen describes in the opening line of Emma, “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.” She’s “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” However, as we read the novel, we see Emma’s flaws. She’s a complex character whose story has held readers’ attention for over two centuries.
It’s no wonder that so many modern authors have tried to capture the complexities of Emma in their own retellings of the novel. For me, the best retellings borrow enough elements from Jane Austen’s classic to feel familiar while adding new elements that make it unique. Some retellings feature variations of Miss Woodhouse, while others give one of Emma’s acquaintances the starring role.
I read the following five derivatives of Emma back-to-back:
- Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken (1990)
In this Emma-inspired novel, Joan Aiken gives Jane Fairfax her own story, set in the same time period as Austen’s original. It took me time to adjust to Aiken’s dense writing style, but once I did, I enjoyed this perspective on Jane Fairfax’s life. The book focuses on Jane’s journey from an orphan to Frank Churchill’s fiance, and gives us a reason for why “no friendship had ever sprung up” between Emma and Jane when they were children (pg. 13). Jane Fairfax is a quiet, talented young woman who deserves a story as good as this one.
- James Fairfax by Adam Campan (2009)
Unlike the other books on this list, which combine elements from Austen’s work with wholly original writing, this novel is almost identical to Austen’s Emma, word for word for most of the book, with a few significant changes: characters are openly involved in same-sex relationships, which are legally recognized, and some of the characters are different genders from their original counterparts. In the Foreword, the author says that this is a “thought experiment,” explaining:
“By changing Mr. Weston into a Mrs. … and James for Jane, I can balance the relationships, and the reasons for marrying. The novel is not relegated to Gay Issues, that is, the characters concerned about being gay. The novel examines human issues, in specific the range of reasons for marrying, whatever one’s gender preference.”
The novel takes place in a re-imagined Regency Era England, and if we can accept other historically inaccurate changes to that period (or completely imaginary changes, like zombies) then readers should have no trouble accepting a Regency Era with laws and social values from our time (unfortunately, though, I’m sure that won’t be the case for everyone).
- The Matchmaker: An Amish Retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma by Sarah Price (2015)
This Amish retelling of Austen’s Emma takes place in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is only about an hour and a half from where I live. I’ve visited Lancaster many times, and when my twins were in the NICU, we shared a room with an Amish child (the Amish do not oppose modern medicine, and many will go to the hospital when necessary). I enjoyed reading a modern version of Emma set in a culture I’ve wanted to learn more about (the author is not Amish, but has lived among the Amish). In this retelling, the main character isn’t spoiled and well-known for her looks, but is instead a “good Amish woman,” one who is “proper and plain.” It’s an interesting twist on Jane Austen’s original book.
- Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (Austen Project) (2015)
“This is the twenty-first century, you know,” Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess, mutters to Emma’s father as he considers marrying off Isabella, his teenage elder daughter. Honestly, I needed the reminder that this adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma takes place in the 21st century. Its stodgy atmosphere and adherence to stereotypical social norms belong in the 1950s or earlier. The writing is full of long, descriptive paragraphs with little dialogue or action, making it a bad choice for me but perhaps a better choice for others.
This modern retelling of Austen’s Emma begins in Highbury, Kentucky on July 4, 1954, the day Emma was born, but the bulk of the story takes place in the 1970s. Emma returns home to care for her father, and George Knightley, a close family friend, is a young lawyer and serial monogamist. Although I’m not quite sure how I feel about Mr. Knightley with a 1970s-style mustache, I enjoyed reading a version of Emma that takes place in the mid-to-late 20th Century, a time of immense social change. There are references to the Equal Rights Amendment and interracial relationships, and Emma faces the question of whether racial prejudice taints her match-making initiatives. I would’ve liked more of an exploration of these themes, but I appreciated that the author didn’t leave these issues out completely.
And a bonus:
- Courting Samira by Amal Awad (2012)
This book is not as closely tied to Emma as the other books I talk about in this post, but it focuses on a Jane Austen-style love-triangle set in a contemporary Arab-Australian, Muslim community where business-like arranged marriages are the norm. It’s a good option for lovers of Austen-inspired work who are looking for books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds. I reviewed it here.
For more variations of Jane Austen’s novels, see: